No Friends But the Mountains

By Michael J. Totten

A visit to Kurdistan reveals an autonomous people ready for an alliance with America and Israel.

Since that era of horror, however, Kurdistan has seen nothing less than a renaissance. It is now the safest, freest, and richest place in Iraq, and for the very same reason it once suffered the most: Because the people who live there are Kurds. The mayor of Halabja, the now-infamous city where Saddam once used chemical weapons to kill five thousand people in a single day, wanted to make sure I understood what that means. “We never terrorized anyone in any country,” he said. “We occupied no one’s land. We defended ourselves with humble military force against a powerful enemy. We consider our nation a protector of human rights.”
The president of Dohuk University, Asmat M. Khalid, whose office is in that city’s old Baath Party headquarters, told me that the Kurds intend to build a new country with this idea as its foundation: “We have a different way of thinking here. We believe the key is to be civilized. We don’t want our new generation to be aggressive. We don’t want them to have to fight. It is not our habit to kill.” President Masoud Barzani, speaking on the al-Arabiya news channel, put it bluntly: “We devoted our greatest efforts to expanding the Kurdistan experience to the rest of Iraq. But the brothers in the other region, I’m sad to say, did not benefit from our experience. We adopted a culture of forgiveness, whereas they adopted a culture of vindictiveness.”
It is obvious why the Kurds reject what passes for politics in Baghdad: Iraq’s Baath Party was the most brutal and thoroughly oppressive Arab Nationalist party in history, and no one suffered at its practitioners’ hands more than the Kurds. Their rejection of Arabism does not stop at politics, though. Most reject the prevailing interpretation of Islam as well. “I speak and read Arabic fluently,” one Kurd told me. “I have read the Koran in its original language. I know it’s more flexible than most Arab imams admit.” Note to Westerners: Many blame religion itself for what ails the Iraqis, but the Kurds are as Muslim as anyone else. And the Baath Party—whose remnants make up some part of the insurgency—is brutally secular.
True, religion is an important part of the texture of every society, but religion alone doesn’t determine a society’s course. Ethnic traditions matter too, which is what the Kurds mean when they say We are Kurds. Abdullah Mohtadi, secretary general of Iranian Kurdistan’s Komala Party, puts Kurdish exceptionalism into historical context: “Kurds were one of those rare nations which resisted to the end the Arab and Islamic invasion,” he told me. “They defended their land, and they also defended their own religion. Our loyalty to our Kurdishness is much more important than our loyalty to Islam. In official national anthems we say we are Kurds before we are Muslims. It’s a general belief. The Kurds—and also the Persians, but especially the Kurds—are the only nation [in the region] apart from Israel where Islamic fundamentalism has no real roots. Kurds are not fanatic in their religion. When I was a child before the Islamic Revolution in Iran, most of the people, the young generation, they didn’t pray. They didn’t fast during Ramadan. People made jokes about religion, about God, about everything. They were so relaxed. They were not bigots about religion. I don’t know why, but that was the case. And that still is the case.”
Even so, most Iraqi Kurds are conservative Muslims. Theirs is undoubtedly a man’s world, and on average less than a quarter of the people out in public are women. Even in Suleimaniah, Iraqi Kurdistan’s most liberal city, around half the women wear the headscarf. Boys and girls are schooled separately, nightclubs are taboo, and while alcohol is available, outside of Suleimaniah most of its vendors are Christians. At the same time, though, the Iraqi Kurds aren’t as culturally foreign to the West as they first appear. Political extremism of every conceivable variety is discouraged. Even a self-described Islamist said in an interview, “Extremes are bad, the middle is better.”
“Kurds don’t get upset about religion,” English teacher Birzo Abdulkadir told me. “We believe in arguments based on reason, not emotion. If people don’t agree with me about something, I’m not going to get mad at them. We will just have different opinions.”
Sadly, the two major Kurdish political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, are corrupt machines that skim money from almost every business that matters. They own most of the media, and they have their own intelligence agents who sometimes spy on civilians. But there are third, fourth, and even fifth parties as well. They also run in elections and hold seats in parliament. They own newspapers and magazines and operate freely. There is certainly a great deal of corruption in Iraqi Kurdistan, and it is one of the most acknowledged problems among the Kurds themselves—but at least no one has a monopoly on it. No single party or clan, let alone person, holds all the power. And part of the reason is that Iraqi Kurdistan isn’t a police state. The people there grouse about their elected officials, and they do it openly. Indeed, if Kurdistan-style graft were the scourge of Baghdad rather than death squads and car bombs, Iraq would be showcased as a smashing success and a model for the entire Middle East.
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Kurdistan is that, its name notwithstanding, it is not an ethnic-identity state. Arabs can and do move there from the center and south of Iraq. As of May 2007, seven thousand Arabs per month are permitted to relocate to Kurdistan after they clear internal security checks. Of course, not everyone is happy about Arabs moving in. “The Arab, he is wild,” said lawyer Iqbal Ali Muhammad over dinner one night. “He is not a civilized person.” Racist-sounding comments like his are not typical, though. Even if most Kurds agree with what Muhammad says about Iraqi Arab culture, they nonetheless contort themselves like good Western liberals to avoid expressing their thoughts in racial terms. They stress that many Arabs do not fit that description at all, that they do not mean to conflate a culture’s worst elements with the whole. It is a strange thing to behold in a region where political correctness and racial sensitivity do not, as a rule, exist.
Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Kurdish culture in Iraq is uncorrupted by terrorism. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Kurdish culture in Turkey. There, the Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has been waging a low-level guerilla and terrorist war against the government and civilians for years. By contrast, Iraqi Kurds never murdered Arab civilians in Iraq or anywhere else—even though Saddam’s regime was incomparably more oppressive than Turkey’s. “Abdullah ײcalan was our own Yasser Arafat,” one Kurd told me, referring to the PKK’s former leader, who was at one time supported by some Iraqi Kurdish parties. “The difference between us and the Palestinians is that we learn from our mistakes.”
And here we come to the most striking thing of all about the Iraqi Kurds, the thing that shows just how different they really are from most of the region: The Kurds are all right with the Jews.
Hatred and distrust of Jews in Kurdistan is but a whisper compared to what festers in the Arab and Muslim world. I have not knowingly encountered a single anti-Semitic person in Kurdistan, even after spending months there talking to people about regional politics. Of Kurdish bigotry against Jews, I have heard only secondhand.
“Is Jew the right word to use to describe Jewish people?” my translator asked me. “Yes,” I said. “Jews call themselves Jews. Why do you ask?” “I want to make sure I’m not using an offensive word,” he said, all but bristling with political correctness. “Some people use Jew as a bad word.” Who? I wanted to know. I never heard anyone in Kurdistan use “Jew” in the pejorative. “Just some old people,” he said. “Never young people?” I asked. “No, not at all,” he said. “Young people have no reason to think Jews are bad people.”
He could have been describing attitudes in the United States, which, after Israel, is probably the least anti-Semitic country in the world. In fact, young and old alike in Kurdistan both have reason to distrust those who think Jews are bad people: Saddam Hussein routinely libeled Iraq’s Kurds as Zionist agents—which encouraged them to think highly of Zionism. Nor did that canard die with Saddam. “The Arabs call us a second Israel all the time,” Peshmerga colonel Salahdin Ahmad Ameen told me in 2007. “They instigate their people and say we want to make a second Israel here in the middle of their area.”

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